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For the love of literature

I have always loved books. The weight of them in my hands, the feel of the pages, breaking a spine for the very first time, and diving nose-first into an entirely different reality, if only for a short while. Nowadays, we find our libraries condensed into a 1cm-thick device, which doesn’t smell nearly as nice.

When I was younger I was enthralled by Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Deservedly amongst Kipling’s best-known works, I would argue this beautiful collection of short stories is an absolute staple in any young person’s library. Filled with origin tales such as “How the Elephant Got His Trunk” and “The Beginning of the Armadillos”, it’s a book I still find myself reaching for all these years later, like a comfort blanket for my mind.

But the story that really had my heart was one of a father and daughter who, armed with a shark tooth, ‘invented’ the English language by etching what we now recognise as letters of our alphabet into a piece of birch-bark. The letter O for example was depicted as an egg, to mimic the mouth’s round shape when making the sound. S was aptly a snake, due to the reptile’s signature hissing sound, and so on. (I would proudly tell teachers and anyone who would listen that this was in fact how language was invented, for many years, before realising it was in actuality entirely fictional. A truth that upsets me still.)

Whilst enchanting on a surface level, each tale holds a deeper Aesopian meaning too, as is made evident in “How the Camel Got His Hump”. In this story, the even-toed ungulate was punished with his protuberance as a result of being “most ‘scruciating idle” and responding with just “Humph!” whenever spoken to. I was exceptionally eager to clean my bedroom without complaint after reading this one as a child; touché, Kipling.

Just as sweet as the tales it houses is the book’s very own origin story. Kipling used to regale his daughter, Josephine, with these fanciful fables nightly before bed. Effie, as she was affectionately known, would insist that the stories were told ‘just so’ without deviating from the script by as much as a single word. I recall being just as headstrong with my own dad as he painstakingly tried to recall the details of the previous night’s bedtime story.

I’ve not found a book quite like Just So Stories since. There’s something so special, even bewitching about these tales, from the intricate pen and ink illustrations to the way the author regularly addresses the reader warmly as ‘O Best Beloved’. I can’t wait to pass these stories down to my son, and experience them anew through him – and, I’m sure, be instructed to tell them ‘just so’.

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